In a sense, a very real one, the offseason was crossroads time for Jordan Howard. He had played five NFL seasons and enjoyed some success, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2016 as a rookie with the Chicago Bears, twice rushing for 1,000 yards in a season, and scoring 30 touchdowns on the ground in his first four seasons.
But then came the 2020 season. Howard left the Eagles as a free agent that offseason and signed with Miami and, honestly, it did not go the way he had anticipated. Howard played in five games with the Dolphins, had 28 carries and 33 yards, and just wasn't part of the picture in that offense. The Eagles brought Howard back to Philadelphia for the final six weeks of the regular season and he bounced back and forth between the practice squad and the 53-man roster.
Then, the crossroads.
"2020 was definitely a difficult year for me football-wise, but I had to look at myself in the mirror and see what I had to work on," Howard said. "I didn't blame other people. I had to see where I went wrong last year and what I could fix to try to get myself in the best shape I could be and come in in great shape, great weight, to give myself a chance."
A chance. A chance at ... staying in the league?
"I understand where I was and how the league felt about me," Howard said. "It was all on me."
So, Howard did something about it. The weight that he put on and the conditioning that he lost following a midseason shoulder/arm injury in 2019 impacted him a season later. Instead of running with his normal power and drive, Howard felt sluggish. He didn't finish his runs and he couldn't move would-be tacklers.
Never one to make nifty moves and show a lot of wiggle with his runs, Howard worked hard to get back on top of his game. He ate better and he lost a handful of pounds and he feels great again. It's showing in his performance at Eagles Training Camp. Howard is part of a crowded battle for a roster spot and playing time in the running back room and he's done his part to stand out. Howard started the preseason opener against Pittsburgh and delivered something the coaches love to see – a crushing block in pass protection, a facet of his game that Howard has improved through the years.
With that, the momentum generated from all the work that Howard put in through the offseason continues.
"You might not think that weight is a big deal, but if the coaches tell you they want you at a certain weight because that's how you best perform and you gain weight, you feel it. Then you understand, and it can be too late," Howard said. "As you get older, you definitely need to keep your weight where it needs to be. Now, I feel a lot better. Last summer, in Miami with all of that heat, it was tough. Now I know I'm moving around a lot better and playing the game I want to play.
"I can handle adversity. That's what all of this has taught me. I started out well in my career and then things went down a little bit. I'm here and I still have the chance to finish my career the way I want to finish it. Looking back, I would have handled my body differently. As you make mistakes, you learn lessons. When I was young, I wasn't ready to learn those lessons. I've learned now. If I knew then what I know now … but you can't look back. I'm pleased now. I like the offense. I think we are going to be versatile and I feel like the pressure I feel is good. We're all pushing each other and giving ourselves a chance."
Howard didn't learn he would start against Pittsburgh until just before the game and then he went out and played well in his limited time. And just because he got the start doesn't make Howard think he's made the team. He knows better. History, 2020 specifically, is the guide here.
"I'm focused on the day. Today. One day at a time, that's the best way to approach it," Howard said. "We're all pushing each other in the running back room, bringing out the best in each other."
With the roster now at 85 players (not including the international exemption for defensive end Matt Leo) and just two weeks to go before the cut is down to 53, there isn't much margin for error. The Eagles have some serious talent at the position. Howard thinks he's someone who can help in the backfield, and the fact that he finds the end zone as well as he does – he's had at least four rushing touchdowns in each of his five seasons, 2020 included – makes him valuable. Howard has truly looked good from Day 1 of Training Camp all the way through the joint practices against New England.
The push now is to play his best football with two preseason games and two more joint practices – against the Jets next week – ahead.
"It was a challenge and I accepted it," he said. "Nothing is easy in this game. I had to take it upon myself to become a better football player, to become the player I wanted to be, that I knew I could be. Here I am."